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A place the Utah Utes have never been, and a reason to believe they can end up there

The experts agree there’s potential in this Utah team like none before.

SHARE A place the Utah Utes have never been, and a reason to believe they can end up there
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham looks on during the Utes’ scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham looks on during the Utes’ scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019.

Courtesy Utah Athletics

SALT LAKE CITY — They came out of nowhere in 2003 and finished the season ranked No. 21, thanks to an obsessive coach named Urban Meyer. The next year, the Utes slid into the coaches preseason poll at No. 21 and finished No. 4.

That’s all the evidence necessary.  

Whether acquiring money or making the playoffs, a good plan is to start high so you can finish high. 

As much as rags-to-riches stories like Utah’s resonate, if your zip code starts with an 8, it’s all about the launch time. June, for instance. That’s roughly when the preseason hype starts rolling in each year. It’s that kind of publicity that makes this season’s Utes intriguing. If they soar, they have a shot at the College Football Playoffs. That’s always the case in a power conference, but the early momentum provides a head start on the all-important CFP rankings in November. 

Thursday at LaVell Edwards Stadium, the Utes launch their most hyped and highest rated preseason in history. The Associated Press poll — football’s most prestigious — has them ranked No. 14. But a slew of other polls are providing buzz. Phil Steele, who annually produces the bible of preseason publications, rates them No. 8. ESPN’s Ryan Leaf is calling them a playoff dark horse. Stadium Network’s Brett McMurphy told the Zone’s Hans & Scotty G he’ll “take a flier” on Utah making the playoffs. 

“If we handle it the right way, it can become a positive.” — Utah wide receiver Samson Nacua

Athlon ranks them No. 13, Sports Illustrated No. 14. The Coaches and NCAA polls rate them No. 15, and Sporting News has them at No. 17. Those aren’t championship-level rankings, but they constitute a consensus. 

“If you do the things you’re supposed to do, good things will happen,” said Utah receiver Samson Nacua. “It’s great to see preseason ranking for us, but honestly, preseason rankings mean nothing.”

Oh yes they do.

They mean everything if you think you have a chance at the ring.

“Anything can happen in this game of football,” Nacua said. You’ve just got to take it one game at a...” 

Timeout!

This is a one game at a time-free zone.  

Much has been made this preseason of Utah being picked to win the Pac-12. Britain Covey, Utah’s elusive receiver and return man, strikes a balance on what it means to start the season ranked. 

“I think the classic athlete’s answer would be to say we don’t pay attention to those things  and, in a way, that’s true,” he said. “We don’t want to pay attention to anything.”

But there’s no law against sneaking a peek.   

“At the same time,” Covey said, “we’re happy that we’re starting high. We think that we earned that last year, and now it’s just proving it. So in a way, it’s nice to be starting high. Now it’s just going to motivate us more; it’s not going to make us lackadaisical.”

Some prognosticators say the only games Utah shouldn’t be favored in are at USC and No. 13 Washington. But no analyst should forget how Washington State and Arizona State have worked the Utes. Utah has lost four straight to WSU and six of eight to ASU.  

Still, the preseason attention has been a gift for a Utah team with high expectations. In 2008, they did all they could have, going undefeated and even beating Alabama — which spent five weeks at No. 1 — in the Sugar Bowl. Yet the highest they could get in the rankings is No. 2. That in part is because Utah was unranked in the preseason. 

Other than now and in 2004, the only other time Utah has been in the preseason polls was in 2009, after winning the Sugar Bowl eight months earlier. That season, they were No. 19 in the initial poll. Losses in the regular season derailed hopes of a big year. 

Now, with the final three games against UCLA, Arizona and Colorado, a crescendo finish is likely. Those teams are picked to finish sixth, ninth and 11th in the conference. As for the rest of the schedule, the Utes are in a rare and favorable spot where their reputation precedes them.